Building a Serious Jewish Library

January 28, 2013Larry Kaufman, z"l

A young friend and former student of mine recently asked her Facebook network for suggestions as to what books she ought to buy as first steps in building a serious Jewish library. Although her request welcomed the nerdy, I have striven to recommend for a broad base of reader/collectors. This struck me as a wonderful opportunity, not only to share my own opinions, but also to groupsource on Rebecca’s behalf (and possibly learn about some books I hadn’t been previously familiar with).

The indispensable starting point, of course, is a ChumashChumashחֻמָּשׁThe Torah in the form of a book. The word “Chumash” derives from the Hebrew word chamesh (five) because the Torah is the first five books of the Bible. Used during communal worship and study, the Chumash often includes commentaries on the Torah text. (Pentateuch) with commentary. Because I like to compare translation as well as interpretation, my library includes nine different commentaries, from various denominational and literary viewpoints, based on six different translations. The one I started with, and still probably my preferred translation, is Hertz, based on the “old” (1917) Jewish Publication Society rendering.

The commentary I find most useful when I am trying to get my head around a d’var Torahd'var Torahדְּבַר תּוֹרָה“Word(s) of Torah.” (pl. divrei Torah). A brief oral teaching to the congregation which explores themes of the Torah portion or other Jewish content. In many communities, a child celebrating b'nai mitzvah (bar/bat mitzvah) will prepare and deliver an original d’var Torah during the worship service. is the Conservative movement’s Etz Hayim, which uses the “new” JPS translation (which I also refer to in its five volume edition, more for thescholarship in its commentaries than for the translation itself, with which I have issues).

The original edition of the Reform Plaut commentary used new JPS; by the time of the revised edition of Plaut and of the Women of Reform Judaism’s elegant Women’s Commentary, the Movement had adopted gender-neutral God language. That is, however, not the case in the Stone Chumash, published for the Orthodox community by ArtScroll, which I am most likely to carry to my Torah study class. I would probably use my other two Chumashim, the Everett Fox and Robert Alter editions, more frequently, if they contained the Hebrew alongside the English.

Conspicuous by its absence from my bookshelves is an English language TanachTanachתנ"ךAcronym for the Hebrew Bible, constructed from the first letters of its three sections: Torah, Neviim, and Ketuvim. (complete Hebrew bible), although I do have a Hebrew Tanach, and have most of the Prophets, Scrolls, and Wisdom literature in Soncino editions. Of course, absence of hard copy is rarely an issue, since whatever I don’t have on paper can be found on screen.

I also own and consult eight or nine different editions of Pirke Avot, Chapters of the Fathers, but I could easily make do for my personal use with only one, the translation and commentary by William Berkson. And amid a number of Midrashic anthologies, I am most likely to reach for the masterly Braude edition of Bialik and Ravnitzky’s Sefer HaAggadah.

Having been schooled in the concept of original texts rather than what my rebbe used to call “about” books, I confess that Talmud itself is missing from my library, as is most philosophy. I do have a fair amount of sociology; who can imagine a Jewish library without Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers or Zborowski and Herzog’s romanticized study of the shtetl, Life is With People? And any Jewish library should include some Jewish history, including Jonathan Sarna’s American Judaism and Michael Meyer’s history of Reform Judaism, Response to Modernity.

As a literature major, my personal library may be overloaded with fiction, particularly translations from the Yiddish, In addition to the obvious Sholom Aleichem story collections, a smattering of stories, memoir, and novels by Isaac Bashevis Singer and his brother Israel Joseph Singer (The Brothers Ashkenazi), the Yiddish fiction masterpiece I reread most often is Chaim Grade’s Rabbis and Wives, which may be easier to find in its second incarnation under the title The Sacred and Profane.

Arguments have been made that a book doesn’t really qualify as Jewish literature unless it was written in a Jewish language. Of course, this definition would disqualify Maimonides Guide for the Perplexed, written in Arabic, and makes is easy for me to disregard the restriction on the original language, and to include as Jewish literature the writings of my contemporaries, Roth, Bellow, Malamud. I also include in the category, but content myself with reading without owning the younger generation, Auslander, Englander, Foer, Shteyngart, and my favorite Allegra Goodman. The same applies to the contemporary novelists who write in Hebrew: A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, David Grossman, etc.

Somewhat hard to come by (search in secondhand book stores) are collections of sermons by prominent rabbis of the past. I am always fascinated by how different our Reform Judaism is from that described by Rabbi Emil Hirsch in My Religion; and equally impressed by the prescience demonstrated in the collected sermons of Rabbi Felix Levy and the challenges thrown our way by Rabbi Solomon Freehof.

Rabbi Freehof was of course our great posek, writer of responsa answering questions about contemporary Reform interpretations of Jewish law, and I am proud to own several collections of his writings in this vein—but our Movement’s chief posek is Rabbi Mark Washofsky, and any Jewish reference library should include his comprehensive guide to current Reform practice, Jewish Living. Depending on her use of texts in Hebrew and/or Yiddish, she might want dictionaries. And a nice capper to any reference collection would be a book of quotations; I personally prefer Rabbi Joseph Baron’s to Leo Rosten’s.

This post represents a selective and idiosyncratic overview of my own library; and I invite argument, dissension, supplemental suggestions of titles, authors, and categories. In any event, I wish those seeking to build a Jewish library much hatzlacha, success, in creating a collection that speaks to their particular Jewish interests and helps enrich their Jewish souls.

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I'm a self-proclaimed book worm. Since I could read, my default setting has been to research anything new at the library before implementing it. However, adulthood has taught me that some of the best lessons are learned after acting and truly living, which is why Rabbi Yanklowitz's perspective so resonates with me. Even so, I always start new adventures by studying.